It is possible that 2-year-old champion Essential Quality already has done enough to again be voted at the top of his class with an Eclipse Award at 3. It is nearly certain he seals the deal with a victory in the $1.25 million Runhappy Travers Stakes on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course.
There is only one mark against Godolphin’s homebred son of Tapit in five starts this season, but it occurred in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. It could not have come at a worse time, and he was more unlucky than lacking. He was bumped at the start, then he and regular rider Luis Saez lost precious ground with a wide trip in finishing behind controversial Medina Spirit, Mandaloun, and Hot Rod Charlie.
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Whatever is ultimately decided about the Derby outcome, Medina Spirit and his trainer, Bob Baffert, are forever tarnished by a positive drug test in the nation's premier race. The intensely-watched colt did not help the situation by running third in the Preakness Stakes. Mandaloun was elevated to victory in the TVG.com Haskell Stakes via disqualification after Hot Rod Charlie clipped heels with Preakness runner-up Midnight Bourbon, but he cannot build his resume. He is being given time off before he resumes training in a bid to win the Saudi Cup next February.
Tough-as-nails Hot Rod Charlie, runner-up to Essential Quality in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets after setting an impossible pace, has won admirers … but not a Grade 1 race. He will try to make that happen in the Sept. 25 Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing. It would be a case of too little too late if Essential Quality, the 4-5 morning-line favorite in the Travers, does the expected and takes care of business in the “Mid-Summer Derby.”
With the exception of the Kentucky Derby – yes, that is a huge gap – the regally-bred colt has been nothing but impressive in sweeping seven of eight career starts for earnings of $3,545,144. Essential Quality is as handy as they come, not an easy quality to come by.
“He’s able to sit close when there’s a soft pace and he’s able to close into a hot pace. He showed that in the Belmont and the Breeders’ Cup,” trainer Brad Cox said.
Cox’s juvenile champ turned back Hot Rod Charlie by three-quarters of a length in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance last November at Keeneland. In the second start of his career, the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, he dispatched Travers contender Keepmeinmind by 3 3/4 lengths. He overcame a wide trip to edge Keepmeinmind by half a length as recently as the July 31 Jim Dandy Stakes.
Trainer Robertino Diodoro clings to the hope that Keepmeinmind may finally be ready to overcome a foe he has chased in vain for two years.
“We said it back in late January that he’d be a better late 3-year-old and he’s starting to show it,” Diodoro said of his Laoban colt. “Hopefully, he’ll take one more step on Saturday.”
Al Stall Jr. also believes that his Masqueparade, third in the Jim Dandy, is headed in the right direction. He described a half-mile drill in 48.11 seconds on a muddy Saratoga track last Saturday as a “career-best work.”
Stall went on, “It seems like he’s getting everything together and doing everything better since the Jim Dandy. Everything is pointing his way.”
There is every reason to believe that Cox also has his colt positioned to take another step forward.
“My plan all along was to have him peak in this spot,” said Cox. “Our goal since the Kentucky Derby was to have him at his best Travers day and from a mental and physical standpoint. I feel he’s right where we want him.”
To that end, Essential Quality fired a bullet five-furlong workout in 59.40 seconds on Aug. 14 at Saratoga. He was asked for much less when he drilled five furlongs in 1:01.58 in the muck last Saturday.
“Luis is riding him with a lot of confidence. He thinks the world of him,” Cox said. “He’s been able to breeze him his last two works up here, and he’s super excited about the opportunity on Saturday.”
His pre-race words of wisdom for Saez?
“I don’t give Luis many instructions with this horse,” he said. “It’s just ‘Do your thing,’ and it tends to work out.”
When the veteran Diodoro was asked about his chances with 6-1 Keepmeinmind as part of a seven-horse field, he responded, “Love it. I can’t wait for Saturday. This is probably the most excited I’ve ever been, not just because it’s the Travers but we’re really feeling good about our horse.”
Stall recognizes how monumental his task is with 8-1 Masqueparade. He said of Essential Quality, “If he runs his ‘A’ race and gets the right trip [from the two hole], he’ll be virtually impossible to beat. But this is horse racing.”
This is horse racing, where anything can and does happen. It also can be said that quality ultimately prevails over the long haul. In this case, that would be Essential Quality.